The True Gold Standard (Second Edition)
To evaluate the history of the Federal Reserve System, we cannot help but wonder, whither the Fed? and to consider wherefore its reform—even what and how to do it. But first let us remember whence we came one century ago.
The End of the Classical Gold Standard
No one knew better than Jacques Rueff, a soldier of France and a famous central banker, that World War I had brought to an end the preeminence of the classical European states system and its monetary regime—the classical gold standard. World War I had decimated the flower of European youth; it had destroyed the European continent’s industrial primacy. No less ominously, the historic monetary standard of commercial civilization had collapsed into the ruins occasioned by the Great War. The international gold standard—the gyroscope of the Industrial Revolution, the common currency of the world trading system, the guarantor of more than 100 years of a stable monetary system, the balance wheel of unprecedented economic growth—was brushed aside by the belligerents. Into the breach marched unrestrained central bank credit expansion, the express government purpose of which was to finance the colossal budget deficits occasioned by war and its aftermath.
The Rise of Discretionary Central Banking
With the benefit of hindsight we can see that quantitative easing (QE) was actually inaugurated with World War I. We can see also that discretionary central banking in the United States coincided with the founding of the Federal Reserve System. After the banking panic of 1907, the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was designed to provide “an elastic currency” but also to reinforce the international gold standard. Thus, Federal Reserve sponsorship of floating exchange rates in 1971 would become one of the great ironies of American monetary history.
To interpret the financial events associated with the Great War and their effect on the ensuing 100 years, my colleague John Mueller and I have highlighted two crucial events of 1913. First, of course, was the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, and second, the publication by the young John Maynard Keynes of his book, Indian Currency and Finance. The inauguration of the Federal Reserve and the intellectual foundation provided by the monetary ideas of Keynes, taken together, soon gave rise to a perfect intellectual and financial storm—a storm which would last a century.